Future, Present, & Past:
Speculative~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.
Monday, January 17, 2011
The myth of the mythical Jesus (and of the disinterested investigator)
A good discussion on Mark Goodacre's blog about the Jesus-never-lived myth. For those who don't know, this is the curious notion that Paul invented Jesus more or less out of whole cloth (sometimes with a liberal dose of Hellenistic mystery-religion, sometimes straight out of the ferment of post-Maccabean Judaism), and that the Gospel-writers came along later and retrofitted the character Jesus with some biographical details (depending on the theorist, this may or may not have been Paul's intent).
This dovetails with two other recent posts on the same theme (they seem unrelated but there must be a meme revival going around): The first is from Quodlibeta, the second from Exploring our Matrix.
This stuff strikes me as as close to historical revisionism as one can respectably come these days. Shakespeare/Bacon/de Vere/(choose your favorite)-- this one is making a comeback. Fashions change, but one day I wonder what else will be subject to the debates of historians. The Holocaust? The moon landing? 9/11? (Addendum 1/19/11: reflecting upon Benoît's comment [below], I add that I do not consider these intellectually or morally equivalent.)
I happen to have a big ol' soft spot for minority views, so revisionism holds a certain fascination for me (I've read a bunch of Velilkovsky, for instance, and some global warming skepticism, and psychic research, and am always interested at finding the point at which the experts get their hackles raised). But I don't necessarily buy into these Fortean accounts. I read them for the little factoids they tend to select for, and for the humbling awareness they foster, that one is constantly dependent upon the say-so of experts. When you first realize this, it is tremendous splash of ice-cold alienation right in the face. Then you realize that you were always alienated, and now you know it-- and can start to negotiate your life differently.
But what about the true believers, who really do buy in? What can motivate a scholar to buck scholarly consensus like this? Probably any number of things, and in the case of the mythicists, it would be naive to reduce them to some lingering animus against Christianity--wouldn't it? I am sure if you ask them, nine out of ten will answer, like Dave Fitzgerald answers Jim McGrath, that they didn't start out a "mythicist;" they were persuaded by the evidence. I take this in the same spirit as I would the assurance that a scholar started out unpersuaded (or antagonistic) about Shakespearean authorship-controversy or 9/11 revisionism or whatever. ("Actually, I set out to prove that the case for Intelligent Design was nonexsitent; to my surprise...") It is not that I think these intellectual positions can't be honestly held. But can one honestly hold that one did nothing but weigh evidence, and weigh it exclusively on its own merits? How was it that you got so lucky as to just be capable of that degree of impartiality and incisiveness?
There's a potential red herring here, since this question has no direct bearing upon the truth or falsity of the positions in question. Edward de Vere could have written all the Shakespearean plays and poems, even if every last person convinced thereof was so persuaded because of resentment, and every last defender of 'the Stratford man' a paragon of disinterested integrity.
So, no, I don't presume that Fitzgerald or Richard Carrier started out just looking for another way to undermine Christianity and hit upon the mythicist hypothesis as the apparently best way, anymore than I think David Ray Griffin was already just looking for an excuse to accuse the U.S. Government, or "powerful forces within it" at any rate, of carrying out a false-flag operation to plunge us into a never-ending "War on Terror."
But I can't help but be struck by the weird audacity of the cause. I mean, sure, if you could finally prove, from documents yielded grudgingly by the CIA or somewhere, that Oswald Did Not Act Alone, that would certainly justify twenty or thirty years of scrounging in microfiche and being mocked by the culture at large. But if you could prove that the central figure of two millennia of Western culture never existed... knocking down Lenin's statue or the Berlin wall would be nothing compared to that. This may not be what motivates every argument Earl Doherty or G.A. Wells makes, but I'd be astonished if it hadn't occurred to them.
(Addendum: James McGrath has put up an index of his posts on Mythicism so far. Check it out).